This paper aims to explore into the distinguishing criteria and class positioning of the middle class and the working class in Hong Kong. The average education level of people in Hong Kong has been increasing since the mid 90s. University graduates were once valuable in the job market and were all white collars now sees themselves as the working class.
We will graduate from university and will start our career very soon. As we were not born in elite families, we will probably start our career at working class level. We are therefore interested to have a better understanding of the class as we also believed that most of the Hong Kong people are similar to us and we would like to explore more into the criteria that determines our position in the stratification system
What are the consequences of the class positions in Hong Kong? Will the “working class” ever think of moving to up to the middle class one day? Is income distribution more applicable to distinguish between the classes in Hong Kong than Class Subculture and Lifestyles? Or are they actually interrelated? How educational level plays the role in determining one’s class position in Hong Kong? This study aims to answer the above questions through the analysis of the interview we conducted.
We have interviewed three people for this paper using snowball sampling. They are either friends of our relatives or our friend’s friend. We did not choose any of our close friends/relatives to avoid biases that might occur during our analysis. The three interviewees are of similar age.
In this paper, we tried to find out how the indicators impact one’s occupation, authority and property ownership and result in the position of the stratification system. Furthermore, we would also like to explore into the consequences of class position (income inequality, conditions of work, class subcultures and political influences) and how applicable are they in Hong Kong.
We interviewed the three people through phone calls to minimize the embarrassment and probability of the subjects lying that might be caused by face to face interviews. Questions about the nature of their job, their income distribution, what they do in their leisure time and their views of government policies were asked. We were also interested to know if they think that they will be able to move up to the middle class with reference to their background.
After the interview has been conducted, we evaluate all the cases and see if they can meet the theory argued by the theorist as mentioned above.
Among the interviewees, one of them has a relatively higher income but relatively lowest educational level (Elaine); one has relatively lowest income but relatively higher educational level (Fiona) and the last one has relatively higher educational level and relatively highest income (Veronica).
The Story of Elaine:
Elaine’s parents only went to primary school. Her father was a taxi driver and her mother was housewife. They lived in public estate. There are four children in her family and therefore her parents could not afford paying expensive school fee. So, she could only finish F.5.
She was employed as an assembly packaging labor in the plastic material company as her first summer job after taking HKCEE in 1988. After about two months, her employer asked her to continue working as a full-time clerk in the company. As the job does not have any requirement on education, ability and skills, she started her job after consulting other colleagues about the flow of the job, the way to finish the tasks and tried her best to memorize the materials through various experience. After a few years, she got a better understanding of the job; she began to have a little autonomy. On average, she has to work over time for around one hour every day in peak season. Although she has got an increasing autonomy through these years, she has to be 24-hour on call when her boss needs her. Up to now, her salary is around $20,000 per month. Also, she believes that she has to obey what her boss tells her to do rather than discuss the issue with the boss.
She recognizes that her position is a little shaky now as she does not have high education level and skills, they limit her bargaining power in the job. One of the reasons why she has stayed in this company for such a long time for it is not an easy task for her to earn such a high pay in other industries as she only has F.5 educational level.
The Story of Veronica:
Veronica grew up in public estate and was the youngest in the family. Her father works in a factory and her mother is a housewife. Unlike herself, her 3 other sisters did not finish high school and started working at around the age of 15. Apart from being the only one in the family to obtain a Bachelor Degree, she studied in Canada for 4 years for her undergraduate study. After her graduation in 2001, she came back to Hong Kong to work. She entered the banking industry since she majored in finance and was determined to work in this field. Her first job was retail sales representative (i.e. the lady behind the glass windows in uniform in a bank) in Citibank, and she felt she could do much better than this so she left Citibank and applied for a higher position in Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank and worked as the personal finance manager till now.
She has a very flexible schedule due to her job nature. Basically her work is to introduce financial plans or prepare financial plans for her clients of whom their investments range from HK$ 100,000 to over 1 million HK dollars. She has a team of 5-6 under her supervision and her job performance is based on the amount of investments she made for her clients in a month. Although she has not considered for graduate studies at present, her job actually requires her to take a lot of exams in order to attain some professional qualification. She has already taken some exams in the past few years, and will probably continue if there is the opportunity. Her current basic salary is $20,000 per month with the commission from the investment she made for her clients. She seldom works overtime and sometimes escapes from work using the excuse of “meeting with her client(s)”.
Veronica lives in a 800ft flat in Whampoa with her boyfriend and they are planning to get married next year. She was the latest to get married in the family.
The Story of Fiona:
Fiona’s father was a worker in a transportation company and her mother was a worker in the factory. Her parents tried their best to earn money in order to let her join different extra curricular activities when she was young.
After graduating in F.7, she got her first job as a receptionist. This job does not require specific skills and abilities and so she had no problem with it and could easily finish all the tasks. Then, she worked as the secretary in a business firm and a law firm respectively. She had a little autonomy in the first one and less autonomy in the latter one as the latter one was restricted by different rules, procedures and ways to perform the tasks. She had to work over time in the company, but not very often. In fact, she does not like working as a secretary but as she lacked experience, expertise and only had a high school educational level, she could only do whatever she got. After working for a few years in those firms, she is now working as a staff in university. She continued her studies in the Open University and finally finished her bachelor degree in 2004.
Her monthly income is around $10,000. In fact, she got more income in her previous jobs. The reason why she changed her job is because she wants to learn more new things such as knowledge, skills, and meeting different people etc. She tried to find a better job through trying various types of jobs.
Findings and Discussions
From the interview we have conducted, it suggested that the boundary between lower middle class and working class in Hong Kong might not be applicable to using indicators like educational level, authority, property ownership and condition of working from text book. Seeming that there are sometimes some contradiction between the real life situation and the theory, the following discussion will analyze the 3 cases through educational level, culture and lifestyle, condition of works and political influence in identifying them.
Educational level is perceived as an important indicator for classifying the classes. Fiona felt more secured and satisfied with her job and life after she had her degree while Veronica has never worried about job security with her educational background.
Receiving tertiary education has become more common nowadays, with more people getting higher qualification, it is not as easy as the past to get a prestige job for degree holders. University graduates were found working as salesperson with low salary, no authority and property.
For Fiona, although she got a bachelor degree, she earns the least among the interviewees. In Veronica’s case, she was in a low position in the previous bank and even now she becomes a manager, her income is almost the same as Elaine’s. The reason why Elaine can get a high pay is because of her experience. Seeming that educational level plus experience is best for striving for higher rewards, but for getting a prestige job, higher educational level has leverage.
Culture and Lifestyle
There are some interesting findings from the real life stories. We can find that the Veronica and Elaine (higher salary) spend more money on entertainment than Fiona does. People usually firstly fulfill the needs of necessity. As Fiona does not earn as much income as other two do, she does not choose and consume expensive entertainment. And the majority of the people who have similar income level act in the same way and this cause the subculture for the groups. Eventually, these subcultures determine different class in the society. People easily make friends in the class as they have similar interest. Suggested by Andrews and Withey, there is a positive relationship between social class and a general sense of well-being.
Conditions of work
We can see that all of the interviewees are satisfied with their current job. According to Marx’s, human nature requires us to have meaning work, work that can be identified as an extension of ourselves, to fulfill psychological needs. All of them can get satisfaction and self-esteem from the job. Like Veronica, she has a high position and she helps prepare the investment plan for her clients. She is happy when she can apply what she learnt, deal with the challenges and make a good performance. She has a strong sense of occupational self-direction. Both Elaine and Fiona enjoy their job as they feel happy when they complete some big tasks. As we can see that Veronica has the highest position among these three people and she has a better job, she has a greater satisfaction which is suggested by Bradburn and Caplovitz that higher in the class system are more likely to report happy. Also, Veronica has more control over her job, she feels good at her job. But since Elaine and Fiona are controlled by their boss, they sometimes feel that they do not have much freedom. It also proves that Tilly and Tilly Theory: “the conditions of work” are stratified. “Those on top are generally better off, while those in middle can look down upon those at the bottom with a feeling that their own condition could be worse.”
All of them think that they are neither the rich nor the poor, they do not have the ability to influence and get the welfare from the government which was demonstrated by Lane’s in-depth study of working-class men who felt they had little ability to influence the events. From the interview, we can see that they concern the economic issue like the financial policy, they would like to vote somebody who can voice their needs in order to reflect their situation to the decision maker. They want somebody who is innovative so that they can break the restriction set by the government. Suggested by Wright, Lipset and Raab, Hamilton, the lower middle class and working class tend to be more liberal with respect to economic issues.
In the 3 cases, either any of the interviewee’s parents have gone to college. Fiona and Elaine view themselves as working class while Veronica perceived herself as the middle class, contradicting to Bradburn and Caplovitz, they all consider their life to be happy. Another interesting phenomenon observed from the interview is that all interviewees were satisfied with their life, in terms of income, job, life style, but revealed their anger towards the inequality in distribution of income when they were asked to present their views on government policies. They all felt that they have to suffer from some inequality under the current social system.
Social Stratification has a big impact on the three interviewees as it is suggested by Fiona that she felt more secured with her bachelor degree and also suggested by Elaine that she didn’t see herself as moving up to the middle class, reflecting how she sees her mobility in the class system.
It is also implied by the interviews that family background does not limit one’s class mobility for Veronica and Fiona has very similar family background but are now in different social classes. Inconsistent to Kohn’s view on Childhood Socialization, the three interviewees who were brought up by working class families prefer the “middle-class child-rearing method” in raising their children.
In terms of income distribution and equality in welfare allocation, all interviewees agreed that inequality occurs. However, their attitude towards educational level with reference to occupation suggested that they have already been conformed to this stratification system. In spite of how much they experienced inequality in society, they feel that there is nothing much it could be done to change the situation for they have no political power at all.
The most common type of interaction with society is accommodation as they have no power in society. Either one works really hard to climb up the stratification ladder or accept the fact and stays in the original level. It is also inspiring to be able to notice that the middle/working classes are the one who suffers in the stratification system rather than the poor class that is in the lowest rank of the stratification system.